I think Bill Hicks once said, “Comedians are just rock-star wannabes with no real musical talent.” Of course, it might be more accurate to say, “Comedians are just people who started out in life doing one thing, failed miserably at it and then became a comic instead” -but the music thing seems to be a pretty common thread.
For example, I am a rock-star wannabe with no real musical talent and I have hours upon hours of shitty garage band cassette tapes to prove it. At least, I could prove it -if only I were able to locate the antiquated, non-computerized machinery required to play back these relics from uncivilized times.
That’s right, before I made literally hundreds of dollars doing standup -I made tens of dollars playing bass guitar. Don’t hate the player, hate my life.
What’s a bass guitar player do, you ask? Well, the bass guitar player is the guy who stands in the back looking like he’s had one too many Ambien -steadily plunking along while the lead singer and real guitar player frantically jump up and down at the front of the stage, performing seemingly impossible aerial acrobatics in tight leather pants and generally getting all the pussy.
But thankfully, those days are behind me now that I have successfully made the transition from failed musician to broke comic with a day job. So to celebrate my success, here are four other failed musicians who went on to seek solace in laughter as well.
1. Phyllis Diller
I have a confession to make: I like Phyllis Diller.
I am not proud of this fact and I am not even sure what it is about Phyllis Diller that I actually like. I can’t think of a single Phyllis Diller joke that ever made me laugh… hell, I can’t even think of a single Phyllis Diller joke -period. In fact, I doubt anyone can… now that I think about it, someone better fact check this thing and make sure Phyllis Diller was even a standup comedian at all, because it’s starting to feel like I imagined the whole thing.
I guess the one thing I do remember about Diller, is that hair… and that make-up… sort of like Bozo the Clown’s aging mother slipping slowly into dementia and finally reaching that point where maybe she shouldn’t dress herself anymore.
“Can’t sleep. Clown will eat me.”
… and now that I think about it, I guess that’s exactly what I like about Phyllis DIller. She was an unashamed freak show for our amusement and dammit, the world could use a few more like her.
It turns out however, she was also a failed musician.
Diller studied piano at the Sherwood Music Conservatory of Columbia College in Chicago and would have launched a professional career were it not for the fact that… well, she kind of sucked… and hey, those are her words -not mine.
Although, she couldn’t have sucked too bad because she still managed to appear as a piano soloist with over 100 symphony orchestras under the stage name, Dame Illya Dillya and became life long friends with piano virtuoso, “Liberace” as a result.
2. Richard Pryor
Okay, I’m not 100% positive Richard Pryor actually first set out to be a singer… but there is this random video of him singing an old blues standard and he appears to be pretty young in the video. But this is the only reference to Pryor’s singing “career” that I can find and every instance of this video is accompanied by exactly the same phrase, “Richard Pryor started his career as a singer. I wish he had done more.” Almost as if it were posted by some random automated spambot for some sort of nefarious purpose that will only be revealed when the master plan is finally set into motion.
I would say, “Until then -enjoy this video.” But the truth is, there is a reason Pryor became a comic and not a singer. So instead I will just say, “This happened.”
3. Tommy Chong
If you’ve ever smoked a joint, there is a strong possibility that you somehow now owe “Cheech and Chong” a small licensing fee. I don’t how they did it, but somehow they managed to make an entire career out of getting high, goofing off and rocking out. Which I guess is basically what most comedians and rock stars do -hence, the whole rock star/comedian connection except most rock stars actually have a discernible talent while most comedians are just lazy assholes.
Not Tommy Chong however. You see, long before he was smoking weed, wearing tie-dyes and rocking out -Chong was smoking weed, wearing leisure suits and rocking out… and by “rocking out” I mean, laying down some subdued white boy guitar riffs punctuated by the occasional “Ooh baby, yeah baby” while the black guy laid down a soulful vocal -but not so soulful as to scare away all the white folks, because that’s how it was done in the days before Tupac.
This polyester powerhouse was known as… and I swear I am not making this up, “Four Niggers and a Chink”. Perhaps not surprisingly, this was Chong’s idea (he’s the chink in case you were wondering) and I think clear evidence that he was already deep into the marijuana thing long before he met “Cheech”. Eventually, however the band must have grown tired of only getting booked as a parody act for the annual KKK rally and wisely decided to change their name to the much less ethnic, “Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers” after adding a couple of white boys to the band.
Once they had a name you could actually say out loud, they quickly landed a record deal and even recorded a top 40 hit called, “Does Your Mama Know About Me” which may or may not be a reference to the fact that dating a “nigger” or “chink” musician in the early 60′s was akin to murdering puppies in church.
Ironically, Chong would go on to co-author an even more popular hit song after he got out of the music business called, “Ear Ache My Eye”. Despite the fact that “Earache My Eye” was meant to be a completely meaningless joke and was probably written in less time than it actually took to finish the joint they were smoking when they wrote it, the song went on to peak at #9 on the Billboard charts and has been covered by bands like Korn, Rollins Band, Soundgarden and Rush.
I hate you, Tommy Chong.
As a side note and further proof that the universe is far freakier than either you or I could imagine -Chong’s partner, “Cheech” Marin actually auditioned as a singer for Frank Zappa‘s band in 1967, but fled to Canada soon after in order to avoid the Vietnam draft. In fact, that’s how Cheech and Tommy Chong first met.
Think about that… if it weren’t for Vietnam, there would be no Cheech and Chong and “Richard Anthony Marin” would be notable only as a backup singer for “The Mother’s of Invention” while Tommy Chong would simply be the rhythm guitar player for his new band, “We Rape Kids”.
4. Ricky Gervais
Remember the 80′s when everyone wore skinny ties, hairstyles were influenced by desert windstorms and you spent most of your time hanging out in an abandoned warehouse with some guy beating on steam pipes with a sledgehammer and singing dark brooding songs with lyrics like, “Irrational accusations as I turn my head. Your threats and trials. My carven smiles. Revolts you in your torturous insecurities” …?
Well Ricky Gervais does.
That’s right. Before earning roughly three gazillion dollars as a stand up comic and creator of “The Office” -Ricky Gervais was busy doing his best David Bowie impersonation while penning lyrics to songs that only the most hopelessly misunderstood and emasculated 13 year-old boys could fully understand.
Most people refer to their time in college as their “experimental” phase, but Ricky Gervais and his college buddy Bill Macrae called it, “Seona Dancing”. Which by the way, is pronounced “Shau-na” just to piss you off even more.
Why are you just now finding out about this? Well, it might have something to do with the fact that the band released exactly two songs before exceeding their annual hair gel budget and parting ways due to the resulting financial stress.
Bill “Sure Is Windy In Here” Macrae and David “Ricky Gervais” Bowie
Yet in a turn of events so unexplainable, it may actually literally prove the existence of a supreme being -the masses not only loved what they heard, they demanded more. Which was too bad, because the DJ who rediscovered this song actually had no idea who was responsible for it -owed largely to the fact that “Seona Dancing” was such a spectacular failure, it actually had the exact opposite effect of fame and the guilty parties might as well have entered the witness protection program, thankfully saving the planet from a possible “Seona Dancing” reunion spurred by their new found Filipino fan base.